Try asking people how to gain weight and you’ll likely see some bewildered faces staring back at you. For the majority of people, hearing that question is akin to hearing the questions,
“How do I stub my toe?” or “How do I run out of gas?”
Those confused faces not withstanding, the question is a legitimate one and one that frustrates those who find themselves on the light end of the scale.
While those on the heavy end can’t get through a commercial break or flip through more than five pages of a magazine without someone offering up a solution to their weight problems, it can be a lonely struggle for those who want to put on weight.
If you are lucky enough to get a reasoned response to your question, it will probably involve the words “eat more.” That, despite being obvious, is great advice.
Quite simply, to gain weight you will need to up your calorie consumption to the point where you consume more calories than you expend. Couple an increased caloric intake with a little weight training and you have the recipe for healthy weight gain.
You may think you eat a lot, even enough to keep pace with your more weight-furnished friends, but you are probably over-estimating your intake.
After a trip to the doctor’s office to rule out medical causes for your inability to bulk up (thyroid disease and other medical problems can hamper weight gain), a first step to designing an effective weight gain program is to journal your eating habits.
Counting calories for a week will give you an accurate view of your diet.
From there, increase your daily caloric intake by about 300-500 calories until you start putting on the pounds.
Keep in mind though, while your caloric intake will directly influence your bodyweight, it will be other factors like the types of food you eat and your weight training regimen that decide the type of weight you are putting on.
So if you are after an aesthetically pleasing weight gain, that of lean muscle weight as opposed to just some extra body fat to lug around, it will be important to pay attention to these factors.
To get the most muscle out of your weight gain, avoid the junk food and focus on eating whole foods.
A good weight gain diet should be composed of 30-50% protein, 20-50% carbohydrates and 20-40% fat (the majority of which should be essential fatty acids). Different ratios within these ranges will work differently for different people.
Keep up your food journal and experiment to find the ratios that work best for you.
Providing your body with the materials it needs to build muscle is only one piece of the puzzle. A weight training program designed to give the body a reason to add some muscle will be very important to achieving your goals.
Your workout routines should concentrate on compound weight lifting exercises (those that involve multiple muscle groups like the squat or bench press) with weights that allow you to do 6 to 12 reps per set. Higher rep ranges will tone your muscles but may not sufficiently signal the body into muscle growth.
Try to either increase the amount of weight lifted or the reps completed with each workout.
Don’t go overboard with your workouts.
Two or three one-hour workouts per week done with intensity should do the trick. Too often those that have trouble gaining weight (hard gainers) spend too much time in the gym.
This can be counterproductive in two ways. First, it means you are burning off a lot of the calories that could otherwise be used to build muscle and, second, you can over-train your muscles by working them too hard, basically making them unresponsive.
If you are looking for some company in your quest to gain weight, venture into the bodybuilding community.
There you will find many people also seeking ways to put on lean muscle mass. You will also find many products marketed to help you gain weight. Be very cautious when looking at these products.
Gaining weight may not be as in demand as losing weight but it is still big business and there are a lot of companies out there looking to take your money. While some of these products can help, others aren’t necessary.
With a little motivation, a weight gain diet and a solid weight training program in place you will have all you need to achieve your gain weight goals.
Better yet, you will never again have to ask that question that gets all those funny looks aimed back at you.
Eat More Calories Than Your Body Burns
The most important thing you can do to gain weight is to eat more calories than your body needs.
A caloric surplus (calories in > calories out) is needed. Without it, you won’t gain. Period. You can determine your calorie needs using this calorie calculator.
If you want to gain weight slowly and steadily, then aim for 300-500 calories more than you burn each day according to the calculator.
If you want to gain weight fast, then aim for something like 700-1000 calories above your maintenance level.
Keep in mind that calorie calculators only provide estimates. Your needs may vary by several hundred calories per day, give or take.
You don’t need to count calories for the rest of your life, but it helps to do it for the first few days/weeks to get a feel for how many calories you are eating.
I recommend using one of these 5 tools to track your intake.
Eat Lots of Protein
The single most important nutrient for gaining healthy weight is protein.
Muscle is made of protein, and without it most of those extra calories may end up as body fat.
Studies show that during periods of overfeeding, a high protein diet causes many of the extra calories to be turned into muscle.
However, keep in mind that protein is a double-edged sword. It is also highly filling, so that it can reduce your hunger and appetite significantly. This can make it harder to get in enough calories (13, 14).
If you’re trying to gain weight, aim for 0.7-1 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.5 – 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram). You can even go above that if your calorie intake is very high.
High-protein foods include meats, fish, eggs, many dairy products, legumes, nuts and others. Protein supplements like whey protein can also be useful if you struggle to get enough protein in your diet.
Eat Lots of Carbs and Fat, and Eat at Least 3 Times Per Day
Many people try restricting either carbs or fat when they are trying to lose weight.
This is a bad idea if your goal is to gain weight, because it will make it harder to get in enough calories.
Eat plenty of high-carb and high-fat foods if weight gain is a priority for you. It is best to eat plenty of protein, fat and carbs at each meal.
It is also a bad idea to do intermittent fasting. This is useful for weight loss and health improvement, but can make it much harder to eat enough calories to gain weight.
Make sure to eat at least 3 meals per day, and try to add in energy-dense snacks whenever possible.
Eat a Lot of Energy-Dense Foods and use Sauces, Spices and Condiments
Again, it is very important to eat mostly whole, single ingredient foods.
The problem is that these foods tend to be more filling than processed junk foods, making it harder to get in enough calories.
Using plenty of spices, sauces and condiments can help with this. The tastier your food is, the easier it is to eat a lot of it.
Also, try to emphasize energy-dense foods as much as possible. These are foods that contain many calories relative to their weight.
Here are some energy-dense foods that are perfect for gaining weight:
- Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, etc.
- Dried fruit: Raisins, dates, prunes and others.
- High-fat dairy: Whole milk, full-fat yogurt, cheese, cream.
- Fats and Oils: Extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil.
- Grains: Whole grains like oats and brown rice.
- Meat: Chicken, beef, pork, lamb, etc. Choose fattier cuts.
- Tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams.
- Dark chocolate, avocados, peanut butter, coconut milk, granola, trail mixes.
Many of these foods are very filling, and sometimes you may need to force yourself to keep eating even if you feel full.
It may be a good idea not to eat a ton of vegetables if gaining weight is a priority for you. It simply leaves less room for energy-dense foods.
Eating whole fruit is fine, but try to emphasize fruit that doesn’t require too much chewing, such as bananas.
Lift Heavy Weights and Improve Your Strength
In order to make sure that the excess calories go to your muscles instead of just your fat cells, then it is absolutely crucial to lift weights.
Go to a gym and lift, 2-4 times per week. Lift heavy, and try to increase the weights and volume over time.
If you are completely out of shape or you are new to training, then consider hiring a qualified personal trainer to help you get started.
You may also want to consult with a doctor if you have skeletal problems or any sort of medical issue.
It is probably best to take it easy on the cardio for now. Focus mostly on the weights.
Doing some cardio is fine to improve fitness and well-being, but don’t do so much that you end up burning all the additional calories you are eating.